Welcome to Insight Mind-Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today, we’re going to dig into childhood. We are going to talk about healing the inner child using somatic techniques. In order to do that, we need to look at childhood trauma.
This is a heavy topic. People don’t tend to want to go back to their childhood and dig all that up. We’ve learned that when we have trauma, we tend to live in the past, our bodies live in the past. So, to heal, we have to go back and look at that.
As Marriage and Family Therapists, we often look at how our family of origin, which is the nuclear family we grew up in, our hometown, our schools, and our environment, shaped who we are. How they created implicit memories, which are memories that live below the surface of consciousness that may be more in our bodies or in our emotions than explicit memories, which are memories we can remember. All of that comes together to shape the individual. We don’t exist in vacuums. We have to look at all of it to understand the current moment.
There is a lot of research now being done on the things we’re talking about today. When you and I were growing up, there was no such thing as Adverse Childhood Experiences. We didn’t talk about epigenetics and how our genes are turned on and off dependent on our environment. We just did our best and our parents did the best they could with what they had.
I’d like to start by talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, ACE. This was a pivotal study in child development research, child development theory, and trauma research.
Back in the mid-nineties a large-scale study, of health outcomes for over 17,000 adults, took place in San Diego with Kaiser Permanente, a big health insurer, and the CDC, the Center for Disease Control. They looked at 10 categories looking at what had happened to people before the age of 18. They found that these Adverse Childhood Experiences were fairly common.
They surveyed people on 10 categories such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, living with a parent or caregiver with mental illness, living with parent or caregiver who may have had some criminal activity, perhaps been incarcerated. More than half of people had at least one type of Adverse Childhood Experience and many reported four or more types of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
It was eye-opening because they had previously done research with at risk populations, but this study was majority white, middle-class, with good health care, adults. We’re not talking about people with lower socioeconomic status, living in poverty. They found that people were profoundly impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences. This made them realize that if we reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences, we can reduce a large number of health conditions.
Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General in California, has a famous Ted Talk and wrote a book called The Deepest Well that delves into the physiology of this. She looked at people who had Adverse Childhood Experiences and then linked them to health outcomes like heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression; things that were medical and not behavioral. She writes about how our bodies hold onto this trauma and it leads to disease. It gets a bit dense because she really digs into brain science. For those of us who get excited about that, it’s a wonderful read. She’s just a great storyteller too. It’s accessible for anybody. It captured attention because it’s medical; childhood trauma leads to poor health outcomes. We can’t quickly just judge and dismiss. This is something that we all have to look at.
In the fitness world, people are trying to figure out, why do I have these health conditions, or why do I fit into an extreme category of a health concern, and they haven’t looked back on their childhood experiences. Doing so helps give a complete picture of what’s going on holistically which gives us more information on how to treat and help heal. When we recognize that we’re all just wounded children, it levels the playing field and removes judgment.
The brain that has been stressed to the point of toxicity is different. When we’ve had adverse experiences in our childhood, we have different functions that are happening, or are not happening, in the brain. If toxic stress is something that’s happening over and over. The brain and the body get into a feedback loop that becomes our habits and patterns into adulthood.
It’s hard to heal by just talking about it. We need to embody that and feel that sense. We have to help that little kid within us to feel safe and empowered. When we talk about healing the inner child, we have so many options to do that.
Nadine Burke Harris recommends a six-pronged approach to combat that toxic stress.
Mindfulness or attending to our mental health
Fostering healthy relationships
Sleep supports all of our processes of healing. It’s something that people are quick to give up or barter with. I encourage everyone to get seven to eight hours or whatever works best for you. It can be hard to sleep, especially if you’re in a mobilization place. That’s where this ties in to polyvagal. How can we get our systems into a safe, relaxed place? If we’re not in a relaxed, safe state, our body will use that adrenaline and cortisol for a survival response instead of a healing and restorative response. Sleep is really essential to that.
Exercise. We need to move our bodies to discharge energy so that we can rest well. Our body and brain are built for movement. When we don’t move, our system feels off.
Nutrition, so important to consider. If our body has enough nutrients and not only our body, but also our heart and mind and soul. Are we nourishing ourselves?
Going back to childhood too, you intuitively knew what you wanted to eat. You ate when you were hungry and you stopped when you were full. If toxic stress interferes, perhaps you use food as a coping mechanism or develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
Mindfulness is key to inner child work. We have to be in the present in order to look at the past from a neutral and healing perspective. We can’t just be pulled back into those emotions. We need to be able to be very present and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mental health. We are huge proponents of mental health care. To honor my mental health is just as important as any other part of who I am. To help heal my adult self, and my inner child.
Healthy relationships. Having positive experiences with people, feeling safe with people, co-regulation.
If someone is thinking about where to begin creating an environment to work with my inner child, go to these six different areas and start.
You and I are both big proponents of body approaches. I like yoga. You are very interested in weightlifting and personal training. I assume that’s been a big part of your healing journey.
Movement was really scary for me when I was little. When I exercised it created symptoms that were very much like panic attacks. I didn’t know it was anxiety. I didn’t know it was a panic attack. I just felt a complete sense of overwhelm and some freeze and a little bit of shutdown so I avoided exercise.
A lot of the work I’ve done as a personal trainer, in regard to my own healing, has been building a relationship with my body where my inner child also feels safe moving.
If my adult self is like, I’m going to go to spin class and my inner child is scared. It’s not going to happen very well, or it’s going to be re-traumatizing. A lot of the work I’ve done within my own self has been to allow my inner child to feel safe and supported and building autonomic resiliency where sympathetic energy doesn’t cause overwhelm anymore because I’m regulated and I’m returning to safety.
When I’m in spin class and I want to turn up that resistance, most likely it’s my inner child who doesn’t want to, who starts feeling trapped or overwhelmed, or doesn’t feel like they’re allowed to stop or say no. In those moments, being present and checking in and supporting that inner child can be restorative. There’s so much healing that happens when we’re doing things that are just run of the mill everyday things.
When I was about eight or nine, I got really sick, and it was unexplainable by my doctors. It got to a real crisis point. It was discovered that I had Addison’s Disease, which is an auto-immune disease in which the Adrenal Glands don’t function properly. I wasn’t getting stress hormones. I began this journey of trying to heal when there was not a lot of knowledge on how to treat a child since it was typically adult onset.
Exercise was not good. Gym class was not good. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the cortisol that was produced like other kids. It was really challenging to feel comfortable in my body. I consider that my trauma. It’s not an Adverse Childhood Experience in terms of the study because I had a wonderful family that made me feel loved and special. Still, I didn’t start to heal until I discovered yoga later in life. I have also discovered dancing. I discovered kickball. Talk about healing the inner child. Such joy and play and movement. Kickball was an excuse for friends to get together and goof off and feel like a kid. That it was so healing for me. I was discharging that trapped sympathetic energy in my limbs. I was laughing a ton and I felt safe and supported. It was a routine. It was regular.
Healing the inner child can be what I call the ‘insidious’ kind of healing. You’re not setting out to say I need to heal my childhood trauma. I just discovered joy in my body and my body and I had always been adversaries. Yoga really helped me get to a point where I could be comfortable in my body. Then I had that practice and was able to play. It’s been very healing.
It sounds like the mindfulness of yoga, being able to be with your inner child and befriend those younger parts, led to further integration of those younger parts into your adult self.
This is very much the Internal Family Systems. Internal Family Systems, which often we call IFS, was created by Richard Swartz in the eighties. As a family therapist, Dr. Schwartz saw that there was a family system inside of ourselves and that we could develop strategies to work with the issues within a person’s internal community, like our internal family.
IFS assumes each individual has a variety of sub personalities or parts. I’m not saying you have Multiple Personality Disorder. A part of me wants to go for a walk and a part of me just wants to stay on the couch. In IFS, the parts build relationships with our Self which leads to healing.
What do I mean by the Self? In IFS the human mind is divided into an unknown number of parts and each one of us has a Self with capital S that is the chief agent in coordinating the inner family. The Self is also the healing aspect of who we are. IFS uses eight different adjectives to describe Self-energy. Some of them are compassion, curiosity, calm. That’s the healing aspect.
Some of our parts don’t need to go to therapy. They’re doing fine. Usually about three distinct parts show up to therapy.
Our managers are responsible for maintaining the functioning of everything. They’re the ones who coordinate schedules and run day to day life. Their job behind the scenes is to prevent pain from happening. For example, a manager part may keep someone on schedule because feeling out of control is painful or scary.
There’s also firefighter parts. Firefighter parts are reactive and show up to stop pain. They can tend to be extreme. If a wound has been activated these firefight fighter parts really don’t give SHOOT how they stop the pain. They’ll do anything. Maybe an eating disorder or an addiction or chronic suicidality. These parts will take any steps to stop the pain.
There are also wounded or burdened parts, called exiles. They’re the parts of ourselves who often result from traumatic experiences. They’re in a state of pain and often are stuck in implicit memories. An implicit memory is a body sensation or an emotion.
Our goal is to have the parts start building a relationship to the Self because they’re outside of the Self. When trauma occurs in childhood, our nervous system is in a phase of rapid development, and often children have to learn how to live with what happens from a traumatic experience in order to survive. That may cause these parts to get separated from the Self.
If someone’s being bullied at school, the Self-energy has to leave to take care of and protect itself. Then that part is left in the bullying. We want to help that part who was bullied, tell their story and build that relationship back to the Self and heal. That process, in IFS, is called unburdening. The part gets to share their story and they are seen and validated and cared for.
When we notice an activation in our system, that we’re upset or there’s a strong emotion, I encourage people to reframe it as a younger part showing up. We don’t need to know how or when that part experienced that trauma. We just honor that there’s a younger part here. Just that will allow our adult self to have some mindful separation and feel more regulated.
It also increases compassion and allows our adult self to be someone that that inner child can safely count on. Children really need reassurance and support. They need to know everything will be okay and they need to tell their story whether it is accurate or not. Our goal in IFS is that all parts are welcome. No parts are wrong. All these parts have good intentions. If there is an extreme behavior, often that part is trying to help regulate or protect the system. It’s not the parts that we’re trying to banish, it’s the methods they’re using to take care of that inner child.
We all have Self-energy. It doesn’t need to be created. If that Self energy is there for the younger part, that part doesn’t need to control anymore, and it can relax. We can find permanent healing of those emotional wounds and release the parts from their roles.
When we look at the prevalence of trauma and the fact that we are all carrying some level of trauma, it helps to explain our behaviors and reactions. It is so empowering in my opinion. It’s a chance to reparent ourselves. Our parents, were always doing the best they could, but there are wounds no matter what, because we are human. They can be a small trauma or a large trauma or multiple traumas or complex or acute. The point is, we all have wounds.
One of the first steps I take to help people get a sense of what parts are activated is diagram the system. This is from Janina Fisher’s book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. It’s a book written for therapists and is an amazing read. If there’s a trigger, for example, someone treats you unfairly, and you’re really upset or angry with that person, we want to notice who became activated. Maybe one part is anger. Maybe one part feels scared. Maybe there’s another part who wanted to offer compassion or feels guilty about what happened. The purpose is to look at who’s showing up and why.
Which of these parts are children or wounds? Which of these parts are managers, trying to control or prevent the pain? Which of these parts are reacting to stop the pain. Then, we really get to know them. We’re curious, why are you here? What do you need? We offer compassion and validation. Then we start to diagram a solution. If you have four parts that were upset, each one probably needs a different solution. We start exploring how Self-energy or adult self can offer healing to those younger parts.
When we find those inner children, some strategies that are helpful are self-holding or contact and being honest. That inner child needs to hear ‘You’re right. We felt this way a lot when we were little and that was really scary, but you’re safe now.’ There’s a dialogue that needs to happen. We need to actually listen to what our inner child is trying to tell us and then respond.
I have a notecard at my desk that says, what would you like to tell your inner child? Can I feel from my inner child but not blend and become that part and then make choices from that place. That dual awareness helps us challenge their reality. We can also function from a place that our adult going on with life self wants to function from.
We have to be with the suffering, unfortunately. That’s where mindfulness comes in. We have to be aware that there is a part of us that is still wounded and tend to that part.
This reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. He was a Vietnamese monk who wrote a lot of books, one called Reconciliation about healing the inner child through mindfulness. He writes about taking that inner child with you everywhere you go and listening for a few minutes every day. When you’re going on a walk in nature, can you imagine that you’re taking that inner child with you? Can you do the work of reparenting in a very soft, kind, joyful way? We can only do that when we’re regulated ourselves.
This is not a one and done situation. That’s frustrating for a lot of people. That wounded child is also the wounded children of your parents and their parents. When we imagine that, it’s a lot easier to contact some kindness.
Picturing ourselves as children can elicit some emotions. Then, we can picture our parents as children and their parents as children. We are holding onto their traumas in our genetic material. This work must be tended to very lovingly. It’s often best done with a compassionate guide, like a therapist, while we are regulated and able to feel into the difficult emotions.
Often, we want to focus once and be done. Yet anyone who’s parented or worked with children, knows how many times you have to reassure a child that they’re okay. We can’t just tell our children we love them once. We remind them and coach them and support them. Our inner child needs that exact same approach. To be present with their suffering with the intention of transforming it, we have to recognize that it is hard, but we are consistently showing up with loving kindness.
It’s a very individual process.
I like to have people tap into joy. That can be really hard. We come into this world with joy, and, of course, trauma and the ancestral wounds that we carry. I often will have people create a playlist for themselves that is just joy. It’s a wonderful tool.
Gratitude is a big part of this work too. I encourage people to write a letter of gratitude to people who have shown up for their inner child or shown up for them as a child. We can look back and hopefully call into our awareness, one kind adult presence who truly saw us and believed in us. That can be very healing for our inner child as well.
We have to practice mindfulness daily too. There are many meditations out there on healing the inner child. It doesn’t have to be a weekend intensive. It can just be a little every day.
Some self-contact can be really important. Maybe a hand or hands over the heart, or giving yourself a hug every day, or moving in a way that feels like play.
I recommend going back to how we speak with them and the language we use. Often as adults, we talk to our inner child as if it’s an adult, trying to get them to see the logic. Trying to reassure them. You’re fine. Why are you worried?
If there are two children playing on the playground and one accidentally trips another one. The second child gets hurt and is really upset and blames the first, thinking they did it on purpose. As observers we know that’s not true. If you try to talk to that child who is really upset, crying, overwhelmed, and in pain, rationalizing, ‘Don’t blame them. They didn’t try. It’s no one’s fault.’ it is not going to soothe the child. We first need to be there for that child and offer comfort, support and safety. Then when they regulate, you can explain if needed.
I often ask people to find a picture of themselves as children and keep it displayed, keep it somewhere that they can see it so that they’re able to really contact that child.
I’ll just cry every day. I look at her and just, I love you so much. It’s therapeutic, but hard. Anything that’s therapeutic is challenging. We need to make sure that we’re able to tolerate that. It can also just be an opportunity for joy. We may be able to recognize that there were some really happy memories from childhood and to be able to savor that feeling.
I often ask, what did you love as a little kid, that had no end or purpose? Can we bring more of that into our daily life? It does not have to be structured and it doesn’t have to be that physically exhausting. It can be playing cards. Play is very healing.
Lots of little things that we can do to help them.
Click on the episode link for show notes.
Keep learning, growing and working with your inner child. Keep playing.
Today, Jess and I are going to tackle the topic of habits. We’ll talk about Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit, James Clear and Atomic Habits, and Jen Sincero and Badass Habits.
Why do you think that people are so interested in reading about habits, Jess?
We all have information at our fingertips. We can research how to change our lives. We know what we need to do, and we often have a hard time implementing things long-term. That makes us want to figure out why it’s so hard. Why do the new habits I’ve started fall to the wayside?
As human beings, we can experience shame with that failure and other feelings that are uncomfortable, and it increases suffering. I think we’re trying to figure out ways to alleviate suffering and live our best lives. The way we can do that is by looking at our habits because 43% of what we do on a daily basis is habitual. That’s pretty powerful. If you want to change your life, what are your habits?
It goes all the way back to Aristotle. Allegedly his quote was “we are what we repeatedly do.” This is really about who we are as people, it’s striking into the character part of us. It’s something we think we can’t change but we can change it with pretty small tweaks.
We’re going to talk about some things that might be helpful in making changes in our lives.
Jeanne, how would you define a habit?
Well, I tend to think of it as an unconscious thing, something that we do on autopilot, without getting our decision-making brain involved.
Let’s think about habits that we have that might be survival-based. Our brains are always scanning for safety. When you walk into a dark room, what do you do? You turn on a light switch. Do you even think about it? No. It’s your survival brain. You were definitely on autopilot. Prefrontal cortex not involved. Your thinking brain was not involved, you were very much in your survival brain.
We could think of many examples, but what we’re talking about today is creating things that can become automatic that we know can serve our higher self, not just that survival part.
Think about some things that you’ve intentionally changed. I can think of something that has to do with dental hygiene. I was taught to brush my teeth, but I didn’t floss. Then I had this dentist tell me that if you don’t start flossing, you’re going to lose your teeth by the time you’re 30. Talk about motivation. I had to intentionally put the floss next to the toothpaste so every night I would floss. It took me years to get into a flossing habit. Now it is religious. I floss daily. All because there was that motivation, I don’t want to lose my teeth.
Can you think of anything like that in your life that you’ve intentionally changed?
I think of my skincare routine. I had some lovely girlfriends say, Jess, I think you need a different skincare routine. Then, trying to implement the skincare routine has taken a lot of work. Now, I’m really proud to say that now, no matter what, I’m the girl who’s washing her face in ice cold water, and then putting on my eye cream and working in serums and misting my face. It’s really important to me. Knowing that consistency is key, it’s something that I’m really proud that I’ve been able to integrate into my life. It has become a habit of mine.
I heard pride in there as being one of the rewards. I’m guessing a lovely skin tone is another one? It is. It takes actual mindful attention because I’m tired at night. There’s quite a bit of psychology when it comes to that, but now it is more of an automatic routine.
Habit psychology. There’s a lot written on this. We are creatures of habit. We are wired for survival. I don’t know about you, but I’ve accumulated a few things that aren’t serving me through this pandemic while we’ve been separated and working from home.
We tend to use the change of seasons as the time to think about what could be better for us. What could we change? What could we add? What could we subtract? We can look at this in terms of psychology. Charles Duhigg, a journalist, wrote a really good book called The Power of Habit. He talks about three steps of the habit loop. First, a cue or a trigger. Then, we have the behavior that happens afterwards. Finally, we get that reward, that dopamine hit. Cue, behavior, reward becomes automatic after a while.
Research shows that it’s much easier to keep a habit that we enjoy versus something that’s good for us.
I’ve read so many things, buzzwords like 21 days to a new you. There’s not really anything that supports the 21 days thing. I’ve read, 21 days, 30 days, 60 days, Malcolm Gladwell talks about 10,000 hours of practice to master a habit or master a skill. There isn’t a magic number for this. It took me years to get into flossing. It’s unique to every person. There isn’t any magic number. Again, like we do start to wear a groove in our brain after a while. Neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in our brains, have a huge role in this.
We’re trying to take that thinking brain out of it and really get into our movement brain. The habit psychology and neurology of this have to do with our basal ganglia, which is really deep in our brains. They are structures that have to do with controlling our voluntary movement. It’s the movement part of the brain, not the prefrontal cortex. Procedural learning in a way. Our brains recall what we’ve done in the past in order to keep us safe in the future and habits are procedural learning.
Most of us know how to ride a bike. We practice as kids, and it becomes second nature. You can go 10 years without riding your bike and hop on and your brain knows what to do. There’s a YouTube video where he flips the handlebars around and no one can ride a bike. Suddenly, your brain has to think about what’s happening because it’s not the pattern that it’s used to.
To me it brings up self-compassion and grace. So many people come to me as a personal trainer to try to work through patterns that don’t serve them anymore and if it doesn’t stick immediately, there’s a lot of self-judgment, a lot of shame and a lot of stories. It takes a long time to build those new neural pathways. It takes a long time to build myelination.
I love that you mentioned self-compassion. Even that is something you have to practice. Offering a sense of trying to do something hard and giving myself a break and not judging myself. We don’t place our value on whether or not we can make habits stick. Practicing self-compassion is a habit in and of itself.
To challenge that negative self-talk and replace it with something else is something we have to be mindful of. One of the ways you can change a habit is by bringing a level of mindful awareness to it in a way that you can befriend what’s happening versus judge it.
Mindful awareness is how we know what needs changing. We have to know we’re out of balance in order to bring ourselves into balance. We have to do that self-study to learn what bad habits I want to change.
Some are really obvious. We know you shouldn’t smoke. What do I need to do to quit smoking? As therapists we can tell people, I think you should meditate, exercise, etc., but a person needs to have that self-awareness to know what’s going to be best for them to have the internal drive to make changes.
Changing a bad habit is different from introducing a new one. Let’s talk about changing a bad habit.
If you want to do it in a holistic way, you need to do the internal work. Work with the different parts of yourself in a way that brings in positive intention. Maybe we say smoking is a bad habit, but there are parts of us who really align with that smoking habit and those parts are trying to do something good for you.
When we think about the different parts of who we are, we always need to take into consideration that they’re always trying to help us find regulation. They’re always trying to help us feel safe.
We work with the parts who are really on board with that bad habit. What do they feel they’re helping you with? What are they scared of? If you let go of the habit, what is their worst fear? Have a dialogue with them so that they understand that it’ll be okay. Maybe that part gets to have a new job. It’s good to go internal with those parts who are sabotaging or continuing a bad habit. Again, we’ve created these habits in response to something. Maybe we light a cigarette because it’s the way that we learn to calm our bodies when we’re in an arousal state, when we’re hypervigilant. Welcome that part and see what it has to say and see what it’s to change.
We have to really think about why we have that habit? But also, if we are what we repeatedly do, do we want to be the person who is short of breath? Do we want to be the person who has little power over this? What is the identity that we want to have? Think bigger picture.
Dr. Wendy Wood, the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits, brought up a great idea she called friction. If you have a bad habit, can you make it harder to do that? If there is a habit you want to add, can you make it easier to do that habit? You can play with friction.
What is the friction that you can create for yourself? It’s not having the cigarettes next to you when you wake up in the morning if you’re trying to quit smoking.
If you want to get up and get on your yoga mat in the morning, make it really attractive. Have it right there, rolled out for you. Have your meditation cushion there and happy things that you enjoy around it. That’s a reward in itself. That will get you there a lot more consistently.
Don’t over-complicate it like, I’ll go to the gym and take my vitamins. That’s doing two things. Neither will happen. It’s too much for your brain to change at once. When you are building a habit, habit stacking is a good strategy. Habit stacking is when you pair things to make sure they happen. It’s a great idea to pair it with something that’s already a habit.
If you’re working on one thing and pair it with something else you want to work on, that can create a freeze response. It can be too much, and we’ll start avoiding. Then we don’t work on anything. Essentially, the body and the brain cannot integrate all of that at once. It’s just like somebody who’s like, I’m going to go work out and you go to the gym and hurt yourself right away because you’re not conditioned. Your body’s not conditioned. Same thing with your brain. Your brain is not going to absorb a lot of changes at once.
Let’s talk about how we create a new habit. It’s simple and yet so challenging.
Going back to cue, response, and reward. If I use my happy light every day for a week, then I’ll treat myself to a massage. It’s important to set yourself up for success and be realistic.
What motivates you?
There’s an article called ‘What is the pain that you’re willing to sustain?’ The idea is that working on goals can be hard. You need to find a way to enjoy the struggle. It’s a lot easier to make something automatic if you can find enjoyment in it.
For example, movement is something that I have to work on because when I become stressed, my system freezes and shuts down. Even though I know movement is important and helps me manage my stress, I tend to freeze.
Throughout my life, I could never quite create a habit around movement until I found weightlifting. There’s something about lifting weights, the pain of it, the hard work of it, is very enjoyable for me. I love every moment of it and that’s why I continue to go back to it.
You need to also be regulated for habits to stick. When I’m not regulated after 7:30 PM, I like to go to sleep. I’m not going to go take an eight o’clock dance class, even though I love dancing. That’s just not going to work for me because I’m tired. If you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, HALT. If I’m any of those things, I’m not going to make a habit stick. I’m not going to perform. My brain’s just not going to absorb it.
I’ve tried for years to like running. I hate it. My body doesn’t want to do it. You know what I like to do? I like dancing. It doesn’t feel like work to me. It’s an easier habit for me to engage in. And yoga. I love yoga. I’m much more likely to stick to a habit that involves something I really like and I can still get endorphins from. I don’t have to get endorphins from running. I’ve worked on self-compassion enough that I can say, that’s great for you. It’s not for me. Instead of thinking I should be out there. Shaming myself into it is not going to help a habit stick. It becomes a threat, and our survival strategy kicks in.
One of the tactile things I like to do is tracking what I’m doing. There are journals that create a theme for the month. You pick, maybe, five habits and color code it. It’s a huge dopamine hit for me to be able to notice that I did my PT 50% of the time this month, look at all that blue. I love that kind of self-monitoring. That’s what works for me. It’s accountability for myself.
What would you say for people who don’t feel that they have a lot of internal motivation or even, for example, ADHD. When you have ADHD, there’s usually a low level of internal pressure or internal motivation. What are some external strategies that can help people create or sustain a new habit?
Again, self study. We have to know ourselves. We have to know what motivates us. Some people are really motivated by money. If that’s the thing you’re motivated by then you might want to, put an incentive there. If I keep up this habit then I’m going to buy myself a new outfit from Athleta. Put a little bit of energy toward it. Getting to know yourself and what really motivates you is so important.
When I put something on my schedule and accomplish it, that feels really good to me. I’m motivated to accomplish those little squares on my calendar. I will write everything I’ve accomplished and the things I want to do so that I can get the satisfaction of that checkbox.
A lot of the things that I do are motivated by regulating my body. I’ve spent years dysregulated. When you get a taste of what regulation and ventral vagal feels like, and start to see that being in that place changes your relationships and your work and how you feel at the end of the day. That’s motivating. I move my body for the regulation. That brings me into a place of feeling like I’m my true self, more than anything else.
My biggest motivator is to tap into that self-energy where I’m calm and curious and playful and connected. That motivates almost everything and is a result of all the habits that I’ve incorporated up to this point.
It’s so exciting that we can introduce healthy changes at any age. I often think of the saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. You actually can change. The brain is plastic and practice makes plastic. We can change our brains with intention.
We believe in being a guide for people and having a person to walk on this path with us. Whether it’s a big change or a small change, Starting a relationship with a therapist can be really transformational, but also doing self-study. There’s a lot of hope out there.
I hope this episode is a little bit of a hack for people to skip through all the science and get some tips and also remember to be compassionate towards themselves
Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today’s episode is titled The Nature Prescription: Gardening for Mental Health.
My guest is Ariyanna Toth. As a registered yoga instructor, Ariyanna has a passion for mental health and wellness. She is a Clinical Intern at Insight Counseling and Wellness, and believes in an integrated approach to mental health, focusing on connection, movement and mindfulness. She has her Master’s in Education with a focus on Applied Behavior Analysis and has previously worked as a behavior analyst with children with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, and learning disabilities. As a psychotherapist, she hopes to combine her knowledge of behavioral change with mindfulness and nature, creating an experience for others to connect to their best self.
As an avid plant person and through her love of adventure in the outdoors, she realized the significant impact of gardening and nature on her own well-being. Inspired by her own lived experience, she now incorporates nature into mental health treatment. Ariyanna is passionate about bringing the body and nature into therapy. You can see why she is the perfect guest to discuss the great outdoors and how outdoor activities, specifically gardening, can lead to therapeutic transformation.
Welcome Ariyanna. A lot of listeners don’t know this yet, but Insight is expanding to a couple of different branches. We have a new building coming this Spring and a new satellite branch in Verona, Wisconsin, and both locations are going to have gardens. Ariyanna, you’re going to be in charge of those, connecting some of our consumers to gardening in real time.
I am passionate about gardening and the fact that I could possibly do it for work is a dream.
In today’s world of technology, many people are choosing to turn off their screens and get back to nature. Where do you think this shift is coming from? Why is being outdoors so important to our psyche?
We are coming to the end of a Wisconsin Winter, most of us have been hibernating so there’s a push to get outside, but there’s a bigger picture.
During the pandemic we went to a place of a lot of screen time. Most of us are spending most of our workday or school day online and then afterwards, more screen time. We are both the most connected human beings on the planet to the entire world through the internet, but also the least connected. A lot of people are feeling lonely and disconnected, and that’s a new thing for humans. If you think back how connected we are to nature, we now spend most of our days inside. This was a really important topic pre pandemic, but also right now.
Nature just changes our system. For example, being outdoors is the number one thing people can do to experience a shift, but even looking out of a window has benefits and even looking at a picture of nature has some benefits, or listening to the sound of a babbling brook can shift our nervous system and our chemicals and our brainwaves.
Today, we live in concrete jungles and the pandemic has pushed a lot of us inside which can shift our mental health emotionally and cognitively, but also how our genes are expressed or how the chemicals or hormones shift in our bodies and what that does to our mental health.
Our brains are hardwired to pay attention to those types of nature senses. Whether you’re standing in a garden or in the middle of the forest are our senses, our five senses are lit up by the sounds and the sights and the smells. Our bodies are hardwired to pay attention to that. We just don’t get that time in our society.
What types of outdoor activities does research show shift our mental health and wellbeing?
Over the last decade, there’s a whole umbrella of nature therapy, ecotherapy, horticultural, which is that gardening piece, wilderness therapy, adventure therapy, and they all boil down to getting outside, connection of some sort, whether that’s to yourself, to others, to something bigger than yourself, and moving your body in a mindful way.
That’s probably why those nature retreats are so sought after and why we feel so different even from going for a walk around our block, let alone getting to go to a retreat or do forest bathing.
There’s a tick-tock trend that says, I’m going on a stupid mental health walk for my stupid mental health and the idea is that, yes, it actually works. Getting outside and moving your body, even if we don’t want to admit that it works, it does. We’ve got to get outside, to feel the sunshine on our faces to hear the birds and look at the trees. It does shift our mental state. We just need five or 10 minutes to experience those feel good hormones.
Let’s shift into gardening.
The research is saying that there are obvious benefits. For example, sunshine. There is a lot of research that shows the effects of vitamin D deficiency on mental health. A lot of prescribers of medications will look at that first before giving an antidepressant, because there’s such a big association between the two. When gardening, you’re going to be outside and in sunshine.
If you’re not sure where your levels are at, get tested. Doctors don’t generally test for vitamin D, so ask for a blood test on vitamin D levels. You could be surprised.
Even when we’re supplementing vitamin D, it takes being outside to make the chemical reaction happen. Taking a supplement and staying indoors isn’t going to make the bio availability of the vitamin D strong. You really want to be outdoors and get that sun on your face, even for a short while. It’s really important.
Another thing is gardening is a physical activity. You’re walking, you’re digging, you’re bending over, you’re lifting, at times it can be aerobic exercise. Spending your Saturday out in the garden moving your body is an obvious benefit.
Also, when you’re gardening, you know where your food comes from. My friends who have gardens love knowing that they grew that food and where it came from and what pesticides or chemicals were, or were not, used. When you go to the grocery store you don’t have control of what went into your food. It also just tastes a lot better when you put so much work into it. If you can get to a point where you’re harvesting your food, that’s an obvious benefit as well.
What are some of the benefits that the average person might not be considering?
There’s a lot of research out there on grounding. With jet lag, getting your feet on the earth can help with your circadian rhythms. In gardening, putting your hands in the dirt and grounding that way can help with your nervous system and regulate yourself. It can help with a bigger sense of connection.
Getting your hands in the dirt is a quick and easy way to drop yourself back into connection with your body. When I think back on planting something or even potting, big smiles happen during the process. It is hard to be mad when you’re doing that.
When I’m mad I do the best weeding, I’ll go to my yard and put some of that polyvagal, hyper arousal, or fight response into the energy of the bending and pushing and pulling. It’s hard not to feel that nervous system shift.
In the garden, I don’t use gloves. I have my hands in the dirt to connect to some of the really good bacteria that’s related to our gut microbiome.
The Harvard School of Health explains our microbiome like a bustling city on a weekday morning, the sidewalks flooded with people all trying to get to their appointments. I like to imagine New York city at a microscopic level. That’s what our microbiome looks like inside of our bodies. It consists of trillions of microorganisms, thousands of different species, not only bacteria, but fungi, parasites, and viruses. The largest number of them can be found in our small and our large intestines, but also throughout our body. In a healthy person these microorganisms coexist peacefully.
They are now starting to label it as a supporting organ because it plays so many key roles in promoting the smooth daily operations of our body. There is this bi-directional, so two-way, communication between our nervous system and the microorganisms in our gut. There’s this gut-brain central communication happening and any imbalance in our gut flora or any inflammation of the gut has been linked to more severe mental illnesses, including anxiety or depression. Because again, that microbia plays a really important role in the interactions between our gut and our system. Brain chemistry, our endocrine system, our hormone system, our stress responses, memory, anxiety, can all be affected by changes in our microbiome.
That’s pretty amazing because it means we can also change it back with things like putting our hands in soil, moving our bodies, eating foods that support the microbiome. As a body worker, there are so many times that I see how nutrition and movement and our gut health truly impact our mental wellbeing.
Our gut bacteria produce a lot of neurotransmitters, those neurons that give signals back and forth in our brain and help create dopamine, norepinephrine, really important chemicals or hormones that are critical for managing our mood, concentration, motivation, decreasing anxiety. The act of putting our hands in the soil starts to shift that change. That’s phenomenal.
Another major benefit of gardening is that there are a lot of life lessons to be learned.
Acceptance of what you can and can’t control. We spent a long time creating an ideal garden in our backyard, including a trellis to hold our cucumbers. A huge windstorm came and knocked over the trellis, which fell on our zucchini plants that were thriving. It was an opportunity to figure out how we’re going to respond. I can say gardening is not for me, I give up, this was a waste of time. Or, I can salvage what I can and figure out how to prevent that from happening during the next storm? That’s a skill that is really important for everyone, children and adults. The lesson of understanding what we can control and what we can’t control and how we respond to what happens in life.
Patience. It’s not like you plant a seed and have a tomato plant you can harvest the next day. In this world, we get a lot, and we get it fast. We live in a world of short-term reinforcement. Food is fast. The internet is fast. If we have a question, we can get it answered.
We’ve lost the stability to do difficult things and put in effort if the reinforcement isn’t immediate.Can I put in the effort and work, knowing that I’m not going to reap the benefits until later, and that’s not even a guarantee. It’s a risk. I don’t want to be hurt or disappointed. At the same time, what an amazing outcome if it does work. I think all of us would probably be helped by having a big dose of things in our life that slow us down and keep us present in the moment. Being able to find connection and a little bit of stillness.
I have ADHD and I think both neuro-typical and neurodivergent can benefit from gardening. As a hobby or a skill, gardening takes a lot of preparation and planning and problem solving and learning from your mistakes. It’s a long-term activity. I think it’s important for all of us, especially children and adults with ADHD, where executive functioning, planning ahead and sticking with it can be challenging.
I connected to different gardening Facebook groups, and it’s nice to have a community of like-minded people. Someone posted, after six weeks, $140 in supplies and daily watering, we are only three or four weeks away from enjoying one single 25 cent vegetable from our garden. It’s the idea of putting all of this work in and getting a very great tasting tomato out of it.
Overall, gardening helps with emotional regulation skills or help us expand our window of tolerating difficulty and things that are uncomfortable for us.
Last year I had some of your zucchini or cucumbers, they were delicious. That came from the storm damage. We had to harvest all the zucchini and cucumber so I gave it away to as many people as I could. Another benefit from this thing that could have ruined our garden was that sense of connection. I was able to give all of this stuff away.
Tell me more about the idea of hunters and gatherers. How does this connect back to our history as people?
There’s a hunter farmer theory, especially related to ADHD. Way back when, there were hunters and there were farmers. If you think about the skills and strengths of a hunter, you have a big burst of energy when you’re out hunting you have hyper-focus, you’re in the moment, and then you rest. A farmer, on the other hand, is day in, day out routine. Daily watering and managing and problem solving for the long-term rewards.
They found that people who are neurodivergent or closer to the ADHD side of the spectrum, tend to be more of the hunter type. For myself, gardening is teaching me some of the farmer type skills that have been very difficult.
It’s a really cool concept because it takes away the stigma of, there being something wrong with you, or this is a disorder. No, your brain just works in this way and we can also build skills that counteract that as well.
When we play or do something we enjoy; we make neuropathways so much faster. So, if you’re someone who is interested in working on executive functioning skills or working on slowing down, enjoying the lesson will allow it to stick a lot faster. Gardening might be a wonderful way of making those neuropathways stronger.
Especially with children who are learning those skills of, wow, I didn’t plan ahead and now my tomato plant is falling over. You’re starting to learn through natural consequences, why it’s important to plan ahead and what works and what doesn’t.
It can be so therapeutic, by challenging somebody but also experiencing the increase in confidence or self-value when we’re able to work through the difficulty.
When someone asks, how can I raise my self-esteem or increase my self-worth, one of my go-to strategies is to take on the hard stuff. We often avoid the hard stuff so that we feel okay, but taking on the harder, unpredictable, or challenging, is where we gain belief in ourselves.
Gardening can really lend a hand to that. It’s those small daily moments that we can change our perspective on ourselves and how we navigate the world. And, this has visual, tangible progress. Being able to see the plant growing and hold something in your hand, makes it easier to connect to success.
I think that’s why, in some ways, people appreciate somatic or body modalities. When we lift, we get stronger. When we do yoga, we feel more regulated. When we do art therapy, we have a picture. When we garden, we have food. Those things are so tangible.
How does one begin to have a garden outdoors or perhaps even inside as an alternative?
The idea of a garden can be overwhelming, especially if you’re an all or nothing kind of person. In my mind, if I’m in a garden, I’m going to have five acres of land and live completely off the land and homestead. It doesn’t have to be that way.
If you have a backyard, great, start with a small garden or some potted plants. If a balcony, there are a lot of things you can do in container gardening, where you just have a pot. If you have a really sunny window, you can do these things indoors. Even just having a couple of herbs for your kitchen.
There are also a lot of community gardens. You sign up for a spot, don’t have to do the work of setting your garden up, but you get this space to be able to grow your plants. It’s a really nice way to connect to other people who are also in the garden, getting community as well.
There’s so much to learn that you can do, but I recommend starting small. Maybe try out one or two plants or types of plants, especially ones that you know you’ll eat.
What are some hardy plants to try before doing something that’s more temperamental?
It really is just about looking up whatever you choose. Most people over water, especially indoor plants. My go-to is once a week in the summer, or once every other week in the winter. Start small. Having one plant to understand how much sunlight and water it needs will allow you to pick it up quickly.
It also comes down to acceptance of the life cycle. A lot of times people think, I can’t keep plants alive, so this is just not for me. I throw away plants all the time. It’s okay to have a basil plant where you reap the rewards and sometimes it dies and sometimes you’re able to keep it alive. It’s important to not shame ourselves because something didn’t have perfect success. Some things only have one season and that’s okay.
The social piece of gardening is huge for mental and physical health and wellbeing. This isn’t an activity that is meant to be alone. Plant people are the nicest people on the planet. Go to a garden store and ask questions. There’s also a ton of different Facebook pages where people post pictures of their gardens or ask questions. People are so willing to help. Finding a friend or a family member or community that will support you along the way is a good place to start.
Thank you so much for brining nature to us.
It’s hard to find an activity that gives you that many benefits on that many realms and we all need a bit of challenge and sometimes heartbreak and sometimes success.
This really isn’t about gardening, it’s about reconnecting with who we are as human beings. If that means just getting outside, or eating the zucchini that I grew, there’s benefits to all of us.
Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today we’re talking about trauma informed yoga, aerial yoga, and how the two fit together.
We’re speaking as white, cis-gender, non-disabled people who are afforded certain privileges. We want to recognize those privileges and continue striving to make our offerings, Insight Mind Body Talk, and our clinic, inclusive and affirming. We also want to acknowledge those who have passed down yogic wisdom through thousands of years of tradition, originating in India.
Our guest today is Nikki Cook. Nikki is a Certified Yoga Therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists. She holds a master’s degree in Education Counseling and additional certifications in trauma informed yoga. Nikki believes yoga truly is a practice for every body. She specializes in yoga for eating disorders, addiction, and trauma. In Nikki’s classes, you’ll find a welcoming, supportive community. She wholeheartedly believes that yoga can be a powerful and effective component of the healing and recovery process and is committed to finding ways to make the transformational tools of yoga available to every body. Nikki also provides individual yoga therapy through Insight Counseling and Wellness in Madison, Wisconsin, and virtually all over the world.
Nikki, would you have thought three years ago that our wonderful, trauma informed, yoga tools would translate into the virtual world?
I don’t think so. I would’ve said you need to be in person. We talk a lot about co-regulation and typically think of that as being physically in the same space with somebody. One of the things that has come out of the pandemic, has been an effective way to work with people within the body and have co-regulation but through the virtual world.
We’ve talked before about trauma and PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, and about post-traumatic growth; how we can grow through adverse experiences. If we reframe the pandemic, we have learned that we can still connect, even through a screen.
What does trauma informed yoga mean to you?
Trauma informed yoga is really people informed yoga. The ways that we teach, and the environment are very important, but knowing about individuals, their experiences, and how trauma and chronic stress affects the nervous system is also hugely important.
Relative to a non-trauma informed class, will people notice a difference with a trauma informed instructor?
I think so. I’ve worked with people who hadn’t experienced a trauma-informed yoga class and did not have the best experiences. When they find us, they notice a huge difference.
One thing that’s important is the environment. For a floor practice, we think about how we configure the yoga mats in the room. Is there enough space in between them? Sometimes we’ll have people in a circle so everybody can see each other. We think about lighting. We don’t want anything that’s too bright or too dim.
We want the instructor or facilitator to try to stay in one space and not walk around. It can be very disconcerting and unnerving to have somebody walking around and feel like you need to be aware of where they are relative to your space. If they do move, they speak to it and why they’re doing it. Another thing that is very different is that we do not do any hands-on assists. We allow people to have their own internal experience without us moving into their space.
Then there’s the way that we offer our yoga poses or shapes. It is an offering, an invitation. We give different options to empower people to explore and to make choices that feel best for them. That is something that is missing in a lot of more mainstream yoga offerings. There’s typically one way to do the pose and there aren’t any options provided. Which sometimes leaves people feeling that they’re doing it wrong which is very disempowering.
When I first started teaching yoga, the images we saw, and still sometimes see on Instagram, were nearly impossible, pretzel like postures; people in very small bodies doing contortionist type things. If that’s what somebody wants to do and it’s all about fitness, wonderful, whatever works for you.
In trauma informed yoga, we’re talking about trauma, which is any event that overwhelms the system. If you’ve been a listener of the Insight Mind Body Talk podcast, you know that talk therapy isn’t always the go-to when it comes to recovering from trauma.
We talk about capital ‘T’ traumas, like surviving a car accident or a war zone. We also talk about small ‘t’ trauma, like being in an abusive relationship or chronically not being seen, heard, or held in our relationships, poverty, systemic oppression, all of these things can wire our system in a way that leaves us always seeking safety, even if we’re not conscious of it.
Our yoga is always through the lens that people are wounded walking into class, whether or not they think they are or are aware of it. We hold that as very sacred. We’re trying to help empower people. Yoga is a union of mind and body. We want to look at the poses, the breath work, everything, through the lens of people being here to heal; looking for safety.
Research shows that 70% of adults have experienced some sort of trauma. From that point of view, as an instructor, you know that you’re going to have people who have experienced some level of trauma. It’s good to keep that at the forefront of your mind when teaching.
With the pandemic, we’re recognizing that we’re living through something collectively. You and I, and trauma informed yoga teachers are equipped to help people heal on their own, in their own space too, which has been a nice thing about the virtual world that we’re living through.
For some people, doing yoga from their home adds a sense of safety and is so important. It has really helped to open the door to using the mind body connection to help regulate their nervous system. That’s another part of what you may experience in a trauma informed yoga session is knowledge of how we use particular poses and breathing techniques to help regulate our nervous system, bring a sense of ease that brings us back into our window of tolerance.
I use a lot of the work of David Emerson who wrote a book about trauma informed yoga and has done a lot of work in the clinical setting in Massachusetts.
The Trauma Center, Trauma Sensitive Yoga is very well known. David Emerson talks about what makes a class trauma informed? I like to think of trauma informed as very informed, we’ve done a lot of deep studies, we have a lot of experience, not just being sensitive to people. We’re really targeting our interventions, as yoga teachers, to help people heal their trauma.
David Emerson also talks about the use of language being so important in a trauma informed class. We’re always inviting people to do things. We’re never commanding. It’s much more empowering. The person has the choice. Often, in trauma, choice is removed.
We want to give people practice making choices that are best for them. Want to have a language of inquiry. We want people to start to see what’s happening in their bodies. We’re not telling them what they’re feeling. That may be a first.
Often, people say to me, what am I supposed to be feeling? You tell me.
It’s something that people aren’t used to. A lot of times we go to a yoga class and in a pose, we hear, you’ll probably feel this here, which for many people may be true, but if you’re somebody who’s not noticing it there, then again, I must be doing something wrong.
For many of us, practicing yoga is where we have the space to ask, what am I noticing? What am I feeling? It is a way to notice and make choices about what feels good, what’s helpful.
There’s something called interoception. It’s an awareness of what’s happening in our bodies. Often in trauma we’re disconnected, and that’s because of the way that our bodies have adapted and are wired now. We have to slowly start to reintroduce this function of being able to know what’s happening in our bodies. That’s why we often leave a lot of space and open-ended questions in trauma informed yoga. To improve the communication between mind and body, or even just start the conversation.
Another domain of trauma informed yoga, assists. If we’re in person, we’re not laying hands on people. There may be times where comfort assists are offered, but if you’re in a trauma informed class, know that we’re not going to sneak up on you in Shavasana and rub your feet. For some people that’s their favorite part of class. To feel like that means you already were in a place where you felt safe and secure. We cannot assume that everybody feels that way.
We don’t want to do anything that takes power away from the individual or the individuals around that person. When you touch one person in class, you’re not just affecting that person. People around you are seeing that too. We err on the side of safety. It’s a different way to empower people.
The most important quality of a trauma informed instructor is that you are regulated. You’re open and always conveying safety. You have a soothing voice. You’re dressed appropriately. Making sure that there’s nothing that is going to trigger anybody. Presenting as your authentic self, consistent, just being there as a safe figure for people. It’s not about you. I’m not going to show you all the poses I can do. I’m going to show you what’s best for you today. Model to the most basic level.
There’s no magic prescription for trauma healing. We want people to be in their bodies. Sometimes there’s a little discomfort. We might want to hold that for a bit, because it helps our systems learn that we can tolerate distress. Often when we’re having a traumatic response, we think it’s going to be permanent, but we can train our bodies that this will end. We learn where we drift into pain and increase that sense of awareness within our bodies so that when we register it, we take corrective action to be in a place of more comfort.
What we do in our therapeutic yoga practice is intended to help us use those skills out in the world. Things are going to be different and that’s okay. We identify things that work some that don’t work, and that’s okay. It’s okay to leave what doesn’t work for you and keep the rest.
What is aerial yoga?
Aerial yoga uses an aerial silk, aerial hammock or yoga hammock, suspended from the ceiling. It’s very strong, it will hold you I promise. It is an opportunity to practice the postures we would normally practice on the floor, but in the air. We can think of the aerial hammock as a prop like the blocks, bolsters, blankets, and sandbags we use.
Many people find it makes yoga poses more accessible because you’re not having to hold up your weight. You’re not compressing the joints as much. Generally, once people try it, they really like it. Think of aerial dancing or Cirque du Soleil. It’s very much like that, except more yoga focused. That’s the apparatus that is used.
Aerial yoga borrows from aerial arts, however, the yoga teacher who really made it kind of mainstream is B.K.S Iygengar. He used suspension on the wall. In those practices you see supports being used for inversions and to hold the body in a way that allows us to get into a posture.
What about trauma informed aerial?
Somebody that teaches trauma informed aerial needs to have been trained in trauma informed, trauma sensitive yoga. The environment, the options, the offering, creating the safe container are all in the forefront of the mind when we’re talking about a trauma-informed aerial yoga practice. That is different than many of the aerial practices that are more focused on fitness. We’ll teach things in a different way than in your traditional aerial class.
Trauma informed and therapeutic aerial yoga focuses on how we can use our practice to bring physical and emotional benefits. How can we use this to provide some relief from symptoms associated with chronic stress, trauma, feeling anxious or unregulated, not feeling safe, disassociated or low mood, low energy.
We talk about our yoga spaces being the safe container. The great thing about aerial yoga is that you have your own little safe container within the group. It provides a little sense of my own little space, your own little cocoon. Some people find that they’re able to release anxiety they may have around what everybody else is doing or looking like. A lot of that is just automatically taken out in aerial yoga practice.
One of the things that I took away from aerial classes is the opportunity to play and feel joy and feel like a kid. Hanging upside down in the hammock was so joyful and I didn’t have to put any pressure on my head, shoulders, or arms. It felt free and fun.
The other thing that I really took away was the relaxation at the end. Being in the hammock is very womb-like. It’s very protected. It’s rhythmic. You can sway yourself. It’s so relaxing.
One of the components to trauma informed yoga is creating rhythm. We’re very soothed by the beat of the heart. Sitting or lying down in the silk, with a gentle sway, is very soothing to our nervous system.
Much like a mat yoga class, aerial yoga will start with some centering, some grounding and then start to build with movement and followed by relaxation, or Shavasana, at that end. In an aerial class, we start seated, somewhat enclosed within the silk.
One thing that you might find a little bit different in an aerial class is the instructor may be moving around. We check in. Are you comfortable with your movement? Would you like me to slow you down a little bit? There is control even when you feel you may not have any. If somebody doesn’t want to be completely enclosed, there are options to have your head, feet, or hands out and still be supported within the silk.
I think there is a fear factor. People are not used to being off the ground. We talk so much in our yoga practices about getting grounded and here, we’re taking you off the ground. Really good for distress tolerance. A trauma informed yoga teacher will have a strong understanding and awareness of what aerial does to our bodies and our nervous systems and will find ways to ease into things. Most people will start with a beginner’s and are given very specific instructions and support along the way.
There’s always the option to take a different pose, sit something out or to take a break if it’s not working for you. Maybe you just want to swing in the silk the whole class. That’s fine. That’s the way we’ve always presented our environment at Insight. If being in this room is therapeutic for you, wonderful. If it’s not, why don’t you go hang out on the couches out in the waiting room, get yourself some water, take care of yourself. We’re very much inviting people to be in charge of their own experience.
Insight is opening an aerial studio here on Madison’s east side, in Spring 2022. I’m excited about having in-person aerial places to practice. There’ll be a lot of orientation getting comfortable with the hammock, giving people that opportunity to try it to see if it’s something that is going to work for you. Most people find that working through the fear factor, uncertainty, or anxiety, helps them ease into their practice. Aerial yoga also really helps us develop focus and concentration because there are certain ways we do things and not a lot of opportunity for the mind to wander.
When I took a couple of classes, I got really sore because I was working muscles that I wasn’t used to working. There’s some upper body and you have the opportunity to really deepen into some hip openers. Lots of core engagement. There are also a lot of people who experience back pain that find this to be a great practice because it allows the spine to decompress and lengthen in a gentle and supportive way. The chronic stress and tension that many of us hold, whether it’s from what we’re physically doing or our emotional internal environment, naturally starts to dissipate.
We have a couple of therapists on staff who work with sensory processing issues. Weighted blankets, sensory swings and hammocks have been really beneficial. We often think of kiddos, folks on the spectrum, or people with sensory processing issues, but the hammock can be a really natural way for everyone to integrate the senses. It’s a different sensation on the skin. It helps with our vestibular senses, the sense of balance and also with proprioception, which is our brain knowing where our limbs are in space.
Using hammocks can help us integrate all of our senses in a supportive and soothing environment. Our studio has nice lighting, lovely music on and builds community. Aerial is fun too. We bring in play, which is something that a lot of people miss out on. I often find people in aerial yoga classes being very kind and supportive which is a nice way to create community and support. The pandemic has been hard. I really need that connection. I really need to just be in a room full of people having fun and being held and supported. All of that happens in a trauma informed aerial class.
I’m really happy that we’re going to be able to offer this at Insight. We’ll put some pictures up of what this looks like. We want you to feel comfortable and know you can ask us questions.
Any final thoughts, Nikki?
I just want to encourage people to give it a try, because I think they’re really going to like it. These will be small classes, 8-9 people, with lots of one-on-one attention. We’re going to be there and supportive. Safety is always at our forefront, your physical safety and your emotional safety as well.
If you want to stop by and look at it, sit in it, ask questions, just let us know.
Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today’s episode is titled supporting our LGBTQ+ population with what therapists should know.
Our guest is Lisa Koenecke, an experienced and energetic diversity equity and inclusion, professional speaker and facilitator. Lisa specializes in counteracting unconscious bias, and LGBTQ+ inclusion in business. Her impact is amplified through strengthening each person’s allyship with a demonstrated history of working in secondary education and a passion toward community and social services. She is an expert in counseling, crisis intervention, educational leadership, and program development.
After receiving her Diversity and Inclusion certification from Cornell University, Lisa launched her Inclusion Ally business. She has given a Ted Talk and written a best-selling book. Being an expert in LGBTQ issues has allowed her to present in 43 states and keynote numerous conferences. Lisa’s speaking style can be best described as dynamic, energetic and interactive. After 12 years of being a middle school counselor, she’s now an adjunct instructor at Lakeland University training the next generation of school counselors.
Lisa, it is an honor to have you on our show. Welcome.
When we were discussing today’s theme, you felt passionate about our conversation being directed at counselors and therapists. Why us vs. speaking directly to the general population?
I think that it’s so important for those in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and Queer and plus, which can be intersex agender, communities to know that a therapist or counselor provides a safe space for them to be their true self. That is why this is so important.
There’s a rise of kids realizing their true selves and becoming transgender. As a mental health therapist, you’re the first stop if people want to transition. You write the letter to the attending physician, the doctor. It’s so important that you know what to say and how to say it.
As mental health therapists, we don’t want to cause harm at any point, but we’re human. We have unchecked biases and different life experiences. When I brought this episode up to our staff, people were really excited to have a place to ask these questions and gain more knowledge in how to better support people, especially teens and children right now.
Even though this is geared toward the mental health therapist, it is advantageous for the entire community. If you just glean one thing from this episode, you might save a life.
Let’s get into the questions, which have all been pulled from therapists.
How do you create an affirming environment at the clinic and in session for the LGBTQ+ community?
It starts with showing that you are open and affirming. That could be anything from looking at someone’s website to an equality sticker, the blue and yellow equal sign from the human rights campaign, by the coffee maker. Do I feel that I’m going to be safe there? Pictures of therapists? Insight has yoga. It could also be in registration forms, seeing guardian one, not mom or dad. Another thing that I look for pronouns. I love when the therapist has a pronoun in an email signature or in an introduction. Anything that helps to say, ‘they get me’.
One of the reasons the Insight team was so attractive to consider being a part of was because there were statements about social injustice and inclusion and intersectionality on their website. There were pronouns for every employee on the website. Why does that matter? Because people feel seen. That is a signal that we see you.
Are there ideas or resources for supporting our clients who want to come out to their friends or family?
Lots of resources, lots of ideas. It’s dependent upon the population. One of the best resources for the K-12 world is www.GLSEN.org. That’s the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.
The next one is the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE); https://transequality.org. Their frequently asked questions page, boom. What you want to know about the transgender population? They tell you from their perspective.
If you’re looking at laws, I love the Human Rights Campaign, www.hrc.org.
It’s important that therapists do their own education to understand the answers that you need.
If you were brought up not agreeing with the LGBT world, you still want to be nice to people, do some research. Make sure that it’s fair and two-sided.
Are there LGBTQ specific suicide risk assessments, or is it okay to use general assessment knowing that identifying as LGBTQ+ is in itself a risk factor?
Off the top of my head, I don’t know. I teach my grad students about the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale.
When it comes to a specific LGBT risk assessment, GLSEN puts out a National School Climate Survey that gives you national statistics of how students are feeling every two years.
G Safe in Wisconsin, The Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools, https://gsafewi.org/ has worked with the people who produce the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, the YRBS. There have been some more inclusionary YRBS questions.
One supportive adult, just one, can reduce the suicide attempt rates by 40%. The best resource there is the Trevor Project, https://www.thetrevorproject.org/. They can give you lots of statistics, and it’s also a suicide hotline, chatline, text line. They also have a safety feature, so if a student is at home or not in a safe place, all they have to do is triple click ESC and it will exit them out of the browser and remove the search history.
Is the Trevor Project, LGBTQ+ lifeline, the best option for crisis support?
Yes. If you don’t have a phone or internet, your best resource is going to be a safe adult. If you are an adult, who is the safest person for you?
A quick story about the Trevor Project. I was a middle-school counselor and had a 12-year-old student come into my office and say, it’s easier pretending to be a boy than it is to be gay in this town. I was 40 years old, cisgender, privileged, had not come out to the students because I was afraid I was going to get fired. I went home that night and told my wife, I have to come out to the student or they might harm themselves, but I might get fired. My wife said, yes, do it. I came into school the next day, found the student, thanked them for the courage that they had and said, you know, I’m gay too. The students said, no duh Ms. Koenecke, we all know that.
The Trevor Project is so essential and important it.
What are some resources that provide explanation of terms and concepts such as transgender, gender fluid, et cetera, that can be used for educational purposes, specifically for those who are not part of those communities?
I have a book. If you want to pick up Be an Inclusion Ally, the ABCs of LGBTQ+, it’s readily available.
One of the best resources is the Trans Student Education Resource, TSER, https://transstudent.org/. These are students who are telling the adults, this is what this means. Please do this, please. Don’t say that. They have a wonderful image called the gender unicorn that talks about identity, expression, orientation, intersex, all of those kinds of things in a visual is anyone can get behind. The genderbread person has now been replaced with the gender unicorn. I also like to show the flags that go along with these.
It’s okay to Google any resources or any terms that you don’t know. I had a student who was gender fluid. What does that mean? One day they wanted to present as male and use male pronouns, second day female, et cetera. I met the student at the door every morning I had them show me a number one, if they were going to present as male that day, or a number two, if they were going to present as female, and I sent a quick text to their teachers so that the teachers knew.
There are lots of terms and new terms. I would just bookmark one of these resources just keep up that way.
It’s okay to ask too.
Things are evolving and changing so quickly, so I appreciate hearing that. We always want to be supportive and don’t want to place the burden of educating us on the individual sitting in front of us. Sometimes that creates the confusion of can I ask, or should I already know?
No, you don’t have to know everything. If you aren’t sure about a gender or appearance or something like that, all you have to do is say, hello, welcome, my name is Lisa, my pronouns are she/her and let your client take it from there.
The younger generations might be more forceful in you need to know these things.
As the elder statesperson of the LGBT world, I’m trying to tell them that we have had many people before me blaze trails, so that I’m able to be who I am, you also have a responsibility to be nice to allies who want to know.
If you have a question, please ask and ask from a place of wanting to help, not because you’re questioning if it’s right. If you ask with concern, or even if you mess up, I’m going to say to you. I’m not going to throat punch you. That’s how we educate the world.
If someone gives you a term and you don’t know what that means, say, tell me more, how can I support you?
It’s also not assuming anything. Always, tell me about your family, not who are you married to? Who’s at home, especially for young people, and then let them tell you. Maybe it’s their biological family, maybe it’s not.
How can we conceptualize gender as a spectrum?
I will give you an example of my dog. We have been taught about pink girl, boy blue, et cetera. My puppy is four years old, she was assigned female at birth, and because we have had so much snow here in Wisconsin, she has learned when, she goes tinkle, to lift her leg. I have a gender-neutral puppy who is not binary because she will squat as well, but I’m not going to change that. Thinking about gender not on the binary for me, a Gen X-er, is a new concept. All I want is for people to just love that person first, let them be who they’re going to be.
When someone presents in different clothes, if they present as non-stereotypical gender, look deeper. Look at that person as a person, not as a stereotype. I grew up playing with tractors and GI Joes. Back then I was a tomboy. Now, I would be maybe gender nonconforming, maybe non-binary. Terms change and that’s okay. The lesson would be to meet them where they’re at. I don’t want people to change me, so I’m not going to change anyone else.
Are there ways to assess when someone decides that they are transgender or asexual, if their decision is a reaction to trauma?
I would probably follow the lead of the client. There is probably more research out there that I need to do more of. I would go developmentally to answer this question.
I had a student who shared over winter break that mom had become dad. The student came in and told me, mom’s now dad, and I was like, tell me more about that. From a developmental lens, can I say that trauma caused mom to transition to dad? I have no idea. Maybe it was just the point in that person’s life where they felt safe and strong enough to be who they want to be.
This might not be a popular answer, but I think that trauma is in all of us and I don’t know that it necessarily has to do with people transitioning. I think it’s more the trauma of not feeling safe to transition. Maybe some people are living in the Madison, Wisconsin area because they know that it is a bubble of acceptance, inclusion, et cetera. Maybe they’re learn here versus a very conservative area where they’re going to get beat up or disowned or whatever.
When we’re talking about trauma, there are so many different things that can happen. My trauma turned into resilience but it’s what I don’t want people to go through. It is why I do what I do.
Dear therapists out there, I don’t know. How ever you best work with people in trauma, if that client is comfortable going there with you, great. If they’re not, please don’t push them. The last thing that you want to do is re-traumatize anyone.
Again, there are probably statistics out there, maybe from SAMHSA, maybe from the National Center for Transgender Equality, that can talk more about this, but it’s not usually one of the first questions.
We are all wounded individuals walking this earth, there is no one who has not been traumatized. Maybe there’s different levels of insight into those traumatic experiences and how they’ve shaped us, but birth itself is trauma, so we have all been traumatized. Supporting each other and meeting a person where they’re at is one of the best ways that we can provide that care.
Growing up, I did not have safe male role models. Is that what turned me gay? I don’t think so. I think I realized it’s really hard for me to trust a man. I liked women and I’m not seeing that from a sexual vantage point, but that’s who I surrounded myself with. That was my safety. Maybe that is part of that. Who knows.
How to support LGBTQ+ youth who are quarantined at home with unsupportive parents? I know a lot of Queer young people who have unsupportive parents and are unable to find healthy, safe environments.
The first thought that I have is thank you person who asked this question because you are saving lives right there. That is a huge, huge thing. What I might offer to that student is to find their strength.
Do they like to write? draw? music? What is the solace that that student can have? Not as an escape, but to show them, that identifying as Queer, is cool and it’s just one part of you and until you can get into a supportive environment, how do we get you through one day at a time through positive outlets. We don’t want drugs. We don’t want self-harm. We don’t want risky sexual behavior.
To that student: you’re going to know what your boundaries are at home. What are the safe things that you can do? If you have internet, there are a lot of youth groups online that you could join. Please know that your school counselor is going to be supportive. If they are not, you call me because I’m the past president of Wisconsin School Counselor Association served on the National Board of Directors.
I had a teen client tell me that she’s exploring her sexual identity and thinks she’s “Ase/Aro”- which she explained to mean asexual and aromantic. I’d be curious to hear Lisa talk about those identities and how to help clients (esp. teens) better understand their feelings around their identity.
I would say that the identity is who you are and romance and sex, is a construct. A young person might not understand that so, I’m going to say, fantastic, how do we embrace who you are so that you can go through this world?
What strategies can we work on that are positive so that when people do ask you this question, you know what to say, or how you’ll say it, express it, draw it or whatever it’s going to be.
Not building up tolerance but developing a healthy strategy. Maybe it’s that you start finding the people who are going to accept you. Maybe your sphere of influence will change. Cliques don’t go away. Find your people who are going to be like, that is fantastic.
The world of the arts is so inclusionary across the country. Maybe it’s music, theater, art, anime, find something that does not identify you with any of the social constructs of sex or romance.
I’m working with a client who’s preparing for gender affirming top surgery. I will be seeing them for approximately six months to be able to adequately assess readiness and subsequently write a letter of support. Any guidance around what would be helpful?
I personally do not have experience with this. I know we are very fortunate in the Madison, WI area to have UW Hospital System as a phenomenal resource. I
UW Hospital Systems does a really good job of walking you through some of the things we can ask. I would focus on the safety of this person. Do they have social support? Do they have people around them so that they don’t become homeless or go another route. If they feel that no one loves me, they may turn to drugs and alcohol.
I would also take them through their day. What is a typical day for you? If you’re at home or in school, are you going to interact with anyone? What does that look and sound like? Say you go to the grocery store or outside to get the mail, what does that look and sound like? What is your comfort level with that?
It’s not necessarily you, mental health therapists, being the barrier. It’s more you as the bridge to helping this person live their true selves. Especially if it’s an older person, it’s okay to ask them what kind of things they want in the letter. Maybe this person can now leave their home because they feel more confident or can go into a store and look at clothes that feel more comfortable. For me, I don’t want to transition, but I always go to the guy’s section for clothes. I’m a bigger girl and that makes me feel more comfortable.
It’s kind of a journey together. It’s their life, it’s their body, and you are there to support them. If it’s going to give them more clarity, more mental health, then I’m all for it.
I’m a cisgender white male. How does the patriarchy affect LGBTQ+ folk? What personal biases should I be considering when working with a lesbian couple?
Do not be the savior. Do not lecture. Do not mansplain.
Please know that you might not be our first choice to talk to there. From a cisgender gay white female, I have never ever wanted to talk to a man. I don’t have male doctors. I don’t have male dentists. It’s not necessarily that I don’t trust a male doctor, it is wanting to give power to the females.
Be open to this lesbian couple. Do not judge. Do no further harm. If this lesbian couple gives you a book to read, read it and come back and tell them that was fascinating, thank you for teaching me.
Language is so vital to the work we do and a lot of therapists get nervous that we’ll use the wrong word, pronoun, or concept in session and cause unnecessary harm. I thought it would be fun to play a vocabulary speed round.
I’m going to give you a term or concept from your book Be an Inclusion Ally, the ABC’s of LGBTQ+, and I’d like you to explain what the word means.
If someone uses the term Queer, they are giving you permission to use the term Queer. You never use it unless they use it first.
Brought back and relegated to the positive. A term used by the younger generations, kind of turning more into an umbrella term.
Don’t call someone Queer unless they use Queer first.
It’s just like their pronouns. If their pronouns start with they, then that’s what they would prefer. If their pronouns are she/they, she would prefer she first.
Small ‘a’ ally hears a homophobic transphobic joke and does not say anything.
Capital ‘A’ ally or advocate says that’s not cool. They do something.
Capital ‘A’ allies save lives.
Someone who sees something happening but does nothing.
A social construct.
When you are born, you are assigned a sex, not a gender.
We no longer say that someone is transitioning male to female or female to male. Now, someone is assigned female at birth or assigned male at birth.
No gender reveal parties. It is a sex reveal party, or just say it’s a baby.
Binary and non-binary
Binary is the construct male and female. Male and female clothing, colors, etc. Most of us think in the binary box.
Non-binary is someone who might be assigned female at birth but does wears non-female clothing or does non female things. Don’t put me in a box, do not make me male or female. Non-binary people are using MX instead of Mr. or Mrs.
Latin term for all intents and purposes means the same.
When the trans community was coming out rather than calling us non-transgender, the majority had to come up with our own term so the term is Cis gender, so that I can say that I’m cisgender, my friend can say that they’re transgender.
We are no longer in the DSM five.
That would be something to explore with your client, to say, maybe I have gender dysphoria, maybe I just don’t want people in my business. It can be a real thing for people. This would be one where you can do your own research.
With a capital I
In the world of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Equality is everybody has shoes. Equity is the shoes fit.
Baby is born hard to determine from the external genitalia, how they’re going to assign male or female or intersex.
There are more babies born intersex than those who have cleft palates. You probably know someone who’s intersex.
Doctor gives baby to the adult who has to determine how to socialize this baby on the gender binary.
Could be saying, you’re not feminine enough. You’re not masculine enough.
Football coaches saying come on girls, you throw like sissies.
You have a party at your office and you only say spouses because you don’t want the person with a partner or the person who’s divorced.
I don’t want to fit within that box so I am going to be who I want to be, wear what I want, do what I want to do.
Dorothy Riddle came out with a riddle scale. If you abhor gay people, that would be the lower end. At the very other end it’s nurturance and acceptance.
There are different degrees of how you’re going to like gay people.
What we want for the whole world, is that you want to accept, you don’t want to just tolerate. You want to nurture that person to be able to say, welcome to my family. Welcome to my circle.
Someone who was assigned female at birth and their true selves feel more like male (or vice versa) or could be fluid on all of these things.
By age three to five, we know how we’re going to identify
Age seven is when we start expressing how we’re going to identify
Our celebration in June to commemorate the Stonewall Riots, June 28th, 1969, which was our big gay movement, started by people of color who were trans people. Thank you Marsha P Evans and Sylvia Romero.
The Safe Zone Project
A free training if you want to be able to say, I’ve had a training.
Look it up. Wonderful people.
If you want an Allyship certification, I’m teaching one through Lakeland University.
Lisa Koenecke, how can listeners find you?
I have a website LISAKOENECKE.com. I’m also on LinkedIn. My cell phone and email are on my website. If you want to ask me questions, you can. If you want me to come and speak to your groups, I love it. You can get my book from my website or Amazon, Barnes and Noble, anywhere books are sold. I love, love, love, helping allies save lives.
Tell me a little bit about your course.
It’s 12 hours, three hours for four nights in a row. If you can’t make it, I do record.
The first week is the history of the LGBT movement so that, you know. Then I take you through vocabulary and current laws that you need to know.
The first two hours are me giving you information and then I give an hour of consultation. Basically, it’s eight hours of information, four hours of consultation.
This is happening in your world, great, here’s this resource. People have questions about religion. Here’s a resource for you. I take you through the bathroom laws, registration forms, title nine. I take you through the things that maybe you don’t even know to ask. It’s super fun. It’s super engaging. Just come with an open mind and you’ll walk away with a certificate on how to be an LGBT Ally capitalized.
It sounds wonderful. I’m so glad it’s here and you’re here. I’m so thankful that you’re a part of our community. Thank you for being here today to support us in supporting the LGBTQ+ community.
Please join us again as we continue to explore integrative approaches to wellbeing. Until then, take care.
Welcome to Insight Mind Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
The most grounding force for our mind-body system is routine. Being consistent, having routine can help the nervous system know what to expect and start bringing us back into balance.
Today we’re talking today with Kelly Gardner. She’s a licensed mental health therapist, certified yoga therapist, yoga health coach, and Certified Daring Way facilitator. She specializes in trauma focused yoga therapy in clinical settings and private sessions as well as mindset and lifestyle coaching. She is certified to lead the three-course curriculum created by Brene Brown and combines that work with Ayurvedic lifestyle habits to create lasting change. Kelly lives in Memphis, Tennessee with her husband and two dogs.
Welcome Kelly. What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is often referred to as a sister science to yoga. It is an ancient lifestyle that has the aim of setting us up to feel our best. It’s kind of a preventative lifestyle. If we break down the word, Ayur means life and veda means the study of or the knowledge of.
In the west, we sometimes neglect to teach young folks about how to be in their bodies, to self-regulate, to honor what their bodies are asking for. That’s what Ayurveda is all about. It aligns with how nature functions and tends toward a thriving state.
We are white female Western people with some privilege and want to acknowledge our teachers. This knowledge has been passed down for many thousands of years, from India and Southeast Asia. It is amazing to consider how applicable these concepts are to us today as Westerners, not only to help us in our physical bodies, but in our mental health as well. I often take teachings from yoga and Ayurveda into clinical settings to support everything else that’s being done there.
My understanding is that it’s based on the elements.
You’re absolutely right. It is very much like yoga in that it is broad, and it is deep but when we get down to the fundamental teachings of Ayurveda, it is very much based on the five elements that exist in nature.
Many people are familiar with four of the five elements; earth, water, fire, and air. In Ayurveda, we teach a fifth element, ether, sometimes called space. It literally holds the space for the other elements to show up and be seen. It’s not noticed as much, but it’s supremely important. They all have their time and place. They all show up in our bodies and minds.
We have all five elements within us. They are a way for us to get in tune with the natural world, our connection to nature, and to explore just the unique ways that that’s manifested in our lives. It’s also a way to connect with other people. In this way, we are the same. Many messages we receive can point out how we’re different, so it’s also a connecting science.
Ayurveda the theory, the belief, the teaching is that we’re conceived with our own perfect balance. Upon conception, your perfect balance of the elements was established. Then, as we go through development in utero, are born, and move through life, the circumstances that we’re in, the people that were around, the foods that we eat, everything has an impact on that balance. How we live our lives tends to pull us out of balance. Ayurveda often will say that the practice of the lifestyle of Ayurveda is all about remembering who we are and coming back into our own perfect balance. Rediscovering our true nature.
That sounds a lot like the work that we do as therapists, through introspection and self-exploration. This is another lens to look through. Absolutely.
My understanding is that there are certain constitutions or combinations of elements. Let’s talk a little bit about that.
Ayurveda, like yoga, was originally shared in the Sanskrit language. It’s very much a language based on experience, vibration, and emotion. A feeling language. Because of that, translations can be dependent on the person who’s translating.
We are born with certain dominant elements. Your baseline may fall into a category, constitution, or dosha.
The translation of dosha that is helpful for me, is fault line. This is the place where you can most easily be pushed out of balance.
There are three categories, doshas, energies. We have all three doshas within us. Those doshas are made up of a combination of all of the five elements.
Our constitution, or Prakriti, is our perfect balance. It is a combination of these energies established upon conception. It is your baseline, the perfect balance that you may be working to get closer to with your habits and shifts that you make. Prakriti is balanced. Any imbalance is called Vikruti.
The Sanskrit names for these three categories, or doshas, are Vata, Pitta and Kafa.
Vata is made up of ether, or space, and air. Air is the main element here. Ether is more subtle, the secondary element. If you think about air and ether, they’re invisible. We know that they’re there, but they’re also subtle. They’re all around, but we don’t discuss them.
We can look at how Vata shows up in the physical body, in patterns of the mind, mood, emotional patterns, habits and tendencies, and our gifts or what we have to offer to the world.
Vata, in balance, is very creative. It frequently receives inspiration. It is fun, loving, spontaneous, fly by the seat of my pants energy.
Out of balance, when there’s too much of that happening, we may see a presentation of anxiety, excessive worry, panic, panic attacks, rumination, racing thoughts. When there’s too much of it, it’s really overstimulation.
The second dosha, Pitta. The elements that make up Pitta are mainly fire and a little bit of water. Pitta is the only category that has heat in it. Fire is the only of the five elements that’s hot. Water brings a little balance to Pitta, a little bit of grounding.
In balance, because it is driven by the fire element, Pitta shows up as drive and motivation. Very organized, task oriented, but also very fair. It also represents very justice-minded and fair leadership.
Out of balance, Pitta can show up as, too task oriented, workaholism, never taking a break. It can also show up as a lot of competition and comparison, and a lot of judgment. This is where perfectionistic mindset may show up. In moods, we might see irritability, frustration, anger, and rage.
The third dosha is Kafa. This is the combination of water and earth.
Both of those elements are heavy and very stable.
In balance we see Kafa show up as calm, laid back, stable, go with the flow. Water is the cohesive force in our bodies, it’s what holds our body together. It feels good to be around someone who is very high in Kafa nature. You kind of want to stick with them. They’re stable. It feels good.
When there’s too much of that stability, it can show up as stuckness, low motivation, low drive, low ability to act. If you mix together water and earth, you get mud. You can envision trying to move through the mud within yourself. This can also show up as a holding on to physical objects; collecting things or having lots of clutter or holding on in our minds; holding grudges or more often, or a romantic idea of how it used to be. Too much Kata can display as depression, feeling really down, hopelessness or helpless. Feeling like I don’t know what to do or that I’ve tried, and it didn’t work so I give up.
Your perfect balance does not mean that all three of these doshas are equal within you. I am high in Pitta, almost as high in Vata and very low in Kafa. That’s my perfect balance.
You’re not necessarily born in your perfect balance. If my mom was frequently stressed out or anxious, I could be born with a Vata imbalance, because I was experiencing that imbalance in her in utero. What mom eats and how much she sleeps would impact that balance.
To start to look at our natural tendencies and find our baselines, we often go back to childhood because kids don’t hold back. Until they’re trained to be concerned with what other people think, kids will honor what their bodies need, and will act in whatever way feels good for them in the moment. That’s a great way to find your baseline.
Then, if I look at where I am right now, I feel very anxious or have a short temper, I can start to see what’s out of balance.
I mentioned that I’m highest in Pitta, secondarily, Vata, and lowest in Kafa. Because Pitta is the highest dosha within my constitution, if I have just a tiny bit more Pitta, it’s easy for me to get out of balance, because there’s already the most of that within me. It would take a lot more for me to be out of balance in Kafa because I’m very in Kafa.
What would it look like to add more Pitta to your life?
These energies show up in our minds and bodies, and also show up in nature.
We can see the different qualities of the elements show up in different seasons.
I live in Memphis, Tennessee. In summer it is hot and humid. That adds more heat into my body. Typically, at the end of a season, we see signs that we’re holding on to some of that season’s energy. For example, at the end of summer, I’ll have people asking about acid reflux, acne, rashes, these kind of inflamed presentations in the body. We look at how we can calm that down.
At any point, we can build up an imbalance within us. How we live our lives and our daily habits have a significant impact on that.
To come back into balance in Ayurveda, we want to calm down what is out of control. We would work to pacify Pitta. Often, we do that by giving Vata and Kafa more attention or, looking at the hot qualities of Pitta, doing things that are cooling. It’s usually about adding in the opposite of what we’re experiencing.
Like increases like, so if you’re hot and your Pitta is in overdrive, we wouldn’t recommend that you eat a bunch of jalapeno poppers.
It’s not uncommon to have someone who’s really high in Pitta love hot and spicy foods, put hot sauce on everything, or go to really hot workouts. We can get in a groove of, this is what I am, this is what I know, and this is what feels good to me. We are drawn to that which we are so we may not even recognize that we’re exacerbating the issue.
In the movie Inside Out, there are three characters that perfectly represent the three Doshas. There’s a character that’s fear. He’s very lanky and thin. He’s running around worried creating reports on what could go wrong. Very much representing Vata out of balance. Pitta is Anger. That Louis Black character who’s yelling all the time and his hair’s on fire. Then, sadness represents a Kafa imbalance. She lays down and is like, I just can’t do it. Joy’s dragging her by the foot. Those characters very much represent what we’re talking about.
In nature, we’re constantly in pulsation between two poles, two extremes. The term for that in Ayurveda is Spanda. It’s the root word for spandex. We can move one way and then come back the other way. Stretchy. We want to be nice and stretchy. When we’re in a healthy state, we are able to go from one side to the other.
Looking at the nervous system, a healthy nervous system is able to move into a stimulated state, and able to come back down to a calm state. If we get stuck at one end of the spectrum, we add in qualities and practices from the opposite end of the spectrum to start bringing us back to the center, back into balance.
We are products of the natural world. When we start to recognize the qualities within us during different times of the day, times of the year, times in our lives, we can take advantage of it to feel our best. This is often referred to as the Ayurvedic clock, the Dosha clock. This is where we see the three energies show up within and around us.
We go through periods of life where one of the energies is dominant within us.
From birth through early twenties, we’re in our Kafa stage. Kafa is earth and water. It has a cohesive nature. It’s anabolic. It’s building in nature. We’re in development during those years. We’re learning, we’re growing, and we’re fluid in our tissues. You can see the water element really overpowering everything else.
As we get into the years of determining what we’re going to do for school, for work and lean into having a family, we’re transition to the Pitta stage. This is where we tap into the ability to use our motivation and drive, to get things done, pay the bills, and take care of the family.
Then, as we get into older age, we move into the Vata period of our lives. This is air and ether. They’re both dry. They’re both cool. They’re both subtle. In the physical body, we can see things starting to dry out. We, in our physical bodies, are becoming more subtle. As we age, our bones can become more porous, so the element of space is even in our skeleton.
When we recognize this, we can come into lifestyle practices to help support the process.
These three energies also have a period of time throughout the year that they rule. They have their season, literally.
Fall and early Winter are Vata season. It’s really windy. Things are drying out. You see leaves turning brown and falling off the trees. We’re moving into a cool dry season. It has an impact on our bodies as well. We may find that our skin starts to dry out. We need to lean into hydration and things like that. It can also have an impact on your mind. We’re in those elements all the time. We may feel more spacey or anxious. A little more ungrounded. When we recognize that, there are things we can do to bring ourselves back into balance.
In late Winter and Spring, we move into Kafa. We see a lot of moisture. We have new growth. You get up in the morning, the grass is wet, the new buds are wet. It’s baby season in nature. Almost a rebirth. We can also see allergies come up, congestion, mucusy liquid, build up.
In Summer, we’re in Pitta season. The hot, humid, action phase in nature. Everything’s in full bloom. Everything’s green. Everything’s turned all the way on in nature.
Throughout the year we experience the alternation of the energies.
Moving from macro to micro, we also experience this every 24-hours. In a 24-hour period, each of the three energies comes into power in our minds and bodies twice.
As I explain this, I’ll refer to specific timeframes, but these are guidelines because it’s really based on sunrise and sunset so the timeframes are a little bit different depending on the time of year and where you live.
Between 10:00 AM and 2:00 PM is the hottest time of the day in nature and also within us. This is when Pitta rules. This is when our digestive fire is strongest. This is when we are most able to use the fire within us to solve problems. The power of Pitta is transformation. During this time of day, we’re best able to break down things and turn them into other things. For instance, we can break down the problem and turn it into a plan of action. We can break down the food and turn it into nutrients, assimilated into our tissues. The power of Pitta is the ability to break down, digest, or process in some way.
Moving to the afternoon, the 2:00 PM to 6:00 PM period of time. This is when Vata comes into power. Vata is air and ether. If you think about wind, it can move in any direction. Typically, the energy of Vata is up and out in all directions. It has no container; it goes wherever it wants. This is a time of quick reflexes, quick thinking, high creativity. It is a great time to create the to-do list for the next day or tackle creative projects.
Moving into the evening time, 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM is when Kafa comes into to rule. It’s earth and water. It’s a heavy, downward flowing energy. What we want to do is honor the downward flow of energy. Typically, somewhere early in the evening at the end of Vata or the very beginning of Kafa, we’re eating a light meal, the last meal of the day, and then we’re going to honor the downward flow of energy and begin to wind down. That’s when we get our comfy pants on to settle into the couch.
Ideally, this is a time of connection and cohesion. Connection with ourselves, maybe some self-care practices. Connecting with the people that we live with, doing something fun, light, playing a game, or watching a movie.
In the 10:00 PM to 2:00 AM timeframe, we start cycling back through the Doshas. Back into Pitta, an upward flowing energy. There’s a magic window of time that where, if you can fall asleep during the magic window, you’ll sleep more deeply and experience more regeneration. We recommend going to sleep around 10:00 PM so that we beat that upward flow of energy. If we stay up too late, we see a second wind. All of a sudden I’m energized. My brain is clicked on. I can stay up for three more hours. We want to beat that upward flow of energy by going to sleep before it turns on. If we do, then the fire energy works within us as the night shift cleaning house. This is where our minds take everything we’ve learned throughout the day, process and organize it.
From 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM, we get back into Vata. Again, up and out and all over. Quick thinking, quick reflexes. If you wake up between 2:00 AM and 6:00 AM and your mind goes, click I’m on. I can be more difficult to go back to sleep. It’s that Vata energy. Often people who are writers get up very early in the morning to harness that creative, inspiring energy of Vata.
In Ayurveda, we recommend that you do get up before the sun, just to be able to take a moment to tune in. Even if you just sit for a few moments and breathe, it’s opening ourselves to inspiration that can guide us through the day. This may be the time that we practice meditation. It may be the time that we journal or read something inspiring. Now we’re setting ourselves up to be able to respond to our day rather than react to it.
From 6:00 AM to 10:00 AM, Kafa is back. A downward flow of energy. If you sleep in and get up at around 9:00 AM and think, I slept too much, I’m so groggy. You’re trying to wake up in the downward flow of energy. We want to drink water, to rehydrate. We want to honor that downward flow of energy and hopefully let go of the things we don’t need from yesterday. Then we can start on that to-do list. This Kafa period of time is perfect to check things off the list, and really get things done. We have sustainable energy to follow through.
What can we do as Westerners to help balance our energies for improved mental?
The number one most grounding force for our mind-body system is going to be routine. When we recognize that it would make sense for me to do that thing at that time of day, we can set our schedules up in a way that feels better in our system. Also, being consistent can help the nervous system know what to expect, which can help to bring us back into balance. It may be something like going to bed at the same time every night.
Also, starting to notice. Notice how easily you fall asleep or don’t fall asleep, how you feel after you eat, when you eat, if your body needs more movement throughout the day. Really tuning in and recognizing that our bodies can’t lie to us. Our minds have the capacity to lie to us, but our bodies don’t have that capability. They are sending signals and sensations all the time saying, hey, this is what I need.
If we don’t honor our own rhythm, don’t listen, don’t set up routine to help our body be in rhythm, we start to see a buildup of what an Ayurveda we would call Ama, or undigested gunk.
This doesn’t requires a lot of money. We don’t have to buy supplements and oils. It’s really about tuning in, something as simple as increasing your relationship with your mind and body. No matter what you’re working with, you can establish a routine that soothes your body.
Routine is the foundation to bring our minds and our bodies into rhythm. That has an impact on our minds and our moods. It allows us to respond to our lives rather than the inflammation we may be living in, that pushes us to react.
My website is yourradiantsoul.com. I would love to help in any way and encourage people to continue to be curious about this.